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New U.S. dietary guidelines: Less salt, more fruits and vegetables

Many Americans need to cut their sodium consumption by half, especially in certain risk groups, officials say.

February 01, 2011|By Andrew Zajac, Washington Bureau
  • Americans consume an average of about 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily, well above the 2,300 milligrams recommended as a daily upper limit.
Americans consume an average of about 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily,… (Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Washington — Salt is the latest enemy highlighted in the nation's battle against obesity and poor eating habits, with new federal dietary guidelines calling on Americans to dramatically cut sodium intake, bulk up on fruits and vegetables and drink water instead of sugary beverages.

Everyone 51 and older, all African Americans and people with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease —about half of the American population — should reduce sodium in their diets by more than half, according to the revised guidelines, issued every five years by the federal government.

The new recommendations, stronger in tone than in 2005, are aimed at awakening the public to the links between unhealthy eating and such chronic killers as diabetes, cancer, stroke and heart disease. A majority of American adults and a third of children are overweight or obese.

As an easy reference, the report told Americans to "make half your plate fruits and vegetables," switch to fat-free or low-fat milk and reach for a glass of water instead of sugar-laced drinks.

This time, officials emphasized the high price of poor eating habits: three-fourths of every healthcare dollar is spent on treating chronic diseases related to diet, imposing financial burdens on household budgets, business and government.

Past guidance has been "opaque" and there hasn't been enough focus on "how this impacts us as a nation," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose department co-wrote the guidelines with the Agriculture Department.

The advice on sodium was heavily emphasized

Americans consume an average of about 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily, well above the 2,300 milligrams recommended as a daily upper limit.

The guidelines recommend that the half of the U.S. population in higher-risk groups lower their intake to about 1,500 milligrams.

But that is hard to measure, even for willing consumers, because about 90% of sodium that people consume comes from restaurant or packaged food, not the salt shaker.

"You have to look at a label or a [food] company website," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, who praised the straightforward guidelines. The report may be the first since 1980 to state the obvious: "Eat less," she said.

Nutritionist Marion Nestle said the guidelines were a substantial improvement over earlier versions but fall short by failing to name specific foods and products to be avoided, in deference to powerful food lobbies who don't want their products passed over by consumers.

Nestle said the guidelines used the acronym "SoFAS," which stands for solid fats and added sugars.

"Why don't they just say what they mean: eat less meat, sodas, snack foods?" said Nestle, who teaches at New York University. "The most useful thing they could do is name names."

Though advisory, the guidelines influence decisions in school food programs, Meals on Wheels and regulatory issues like food labeling and how foods are marketed to children.

Sebelius unveiled the guidelines with Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack as one of a series of food-centered health initiatives that include a proposed overhaul of federally subsidized school meals programs.

The Food and Drug Administration is working with food producers to improve nutrition information on food packaging and with restaurant chains to add nutrition information to menus.

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